'Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice' Brings Welcome Twist to Familiar Formula

Prepare to die (a lot) in this game from Japan's FromSoftware.
Courtesy of Activision

Revenge ain't easy.

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is the latest offering from Japan's FromSoftware, the video game developers best known for the Dark Souls series. Unlike its predecessors, which had a clear European Gothic influence, Sekiro takes place in a mythicized version of Sengoku period Japan and injects a number of fresh gameplay elements into the familiar FromSoftware formula. Similar to its predecessors, Sekiro is replete with darkly beautiful scenery and character designs and an absolutely brutal difficulty level. 

That challenge, however, should not be a barrier to entry for newcomers or veterans of FromSoftware games. Showcasing a recent demo in Los Angeles, the Japanese developers and publishing partner Activision hosted a small number of invitees to play through the first few hours of the new game and while the difficulty was steep, it was also immensely satisfying.

Sekiro opens with a classical hero's myth first act. The player controls Wolf, a shinobi warrior in Sengoku Japan charged with protecting his young liege lord. When said preteen feudal leader is captured by opposing forces aimed at deposing the current ruling family, Wolf attempts to rescue him and, in the process, loses an arm in a stunningly cinematic set piece battle with a rival samurai. 

This is where the game not only takes a turn in the narrative, but also in the gameplay, as Wolf awakens in a small room on the outskirts of the village filled with strange, slightly creepy wooden dolls carved by an even stranger artist. Judge him not by his appearance, however, as he also serves as a spiritual adviser and incredibly valuable ally to Wolf, crafting a prosthetic arm for the protagonist and later using collected items in the world to create additional accessories for the prosthesis that aid in taking down the many, many creatures and warriors focused on eradicating Wolf.

As in other FromSoftware games, this area serves as a central hub that branches into other parts of the map. What is changed, though, is that the player can now pray at shrines and totems across the expansive world and unlock transportation back to other activated shrines. It helps make the game feel more fluid and also aids in combating the high difficulty of the title. 

Another aspect that helps in fluidity is Wolf's grappling hook. Not only does this tool open up the exploration of the world, but it also adds a stealth element to traversal as well as an evasive dynamic to combat, and it feels both smooth and satisfyingly responsive to whisk, weave and dance through the air with the simple press of a shoulder button.

The true overhaul in Sekiro is the combat system, which has been deepened considerably. As a shinobi, Wolf is a master swordsman, but his skills are constantly put to the test by the demanding various enemy types throughout the game. The key to victory, which may feel strange to those familiar with FromSoftware games, is often not to keep opponents at a distance and dodge their attacks, but rather to get in close and use Wolf's sword and prosthetic tools to stagger them. 

Swordplay plays out like a lethal dance. Counters, breaks, parries and quick dodges blend together in a bloody ballet as the player aims to break their enemy's stance, opening them up for a bigger hit or a finishing move (which are presented in exuberantly bloody fashion and variety). 

Sekiro is difficult, but it hardly feels cheap. When an enemy lands a killing blow it is often the result of a missed opportunity or miscalculated button press on the part of the player. An early boss, a towering ogre that can deplete half of Wolf's health with a single move, presents the player with an early test. Death screens are common (very common), but Sekiro introduces a revival option (to be used only once per battle) that gives Wolf a second chance at taking down his enemy. It's hardly a fail-safe option, as the player is likely to fall many times before they conquer their foe, but it is a welcome addition.

Of course, this is FromSoftware, so offering such a lifeline comes at a price: use the revival option too many times and there will be consequences. Players have been warned.

Overall, even with the short time allotted to invited guests to experience the game, it is abundantly clear that FromSoftware has advanced its formula in most areas across the board while still maintaining the core essence of what has made their past titles hits. Sekiro's world is beautiful, dark, full of strange creatures and dangerous foes and the combat gameplay is challenging but rewarding. Furthermore, the game encourages exploration not only as a way of world-building, but also to help tackle its many challenges.

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice will be available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC on March 22.